Creating a Sense of Wonder

Teaching, we are told, is a profession. Not only must a teacher know the subject matter they are to teach, they require special training in the methods of teaching. They require monitored classroom experience before being let loose. They must be certified as prepared to engage young minds. (Please don’t ask me why you can teach at a university or college without any of this, but you can’t face a class of elementary or secondary school level students without the paperwork.)

Let me suggest something heretical. Somewhere in all that training — or perhaps it’s in the instructional resource plan documents prepared by Ministries of Education to ensure standardised curricula and results? — something goes missing.

It’s something a Montessori classroom would know well: the story arc to frame material and connect the pieces.

Let me take you back to 2007, for instance when my son had his first real lesson in Social Studies: we are in the fifth class of the year, having given up the first four to admonitions, administration, etc. He was introduced to the study of ancient civilizations with an overview lecture.

At the dinner table, his feelings about this class were mixed. On the one hand, he was excited to be doing something (at last) and the subject sounded interesting.

Unfortunately, rather than make it so, the session was diverted into a discussion of today’s topic of water cooler chat all over Canada, the Canadian dollar reaching parity with the US dollar (what that has to do with ancient civilizations is beyond me, but it was worth nearly 20% of the available time), and, after listing the civilizations to be studied, there followed a discussion of movies about them (so, for instance, “Who has seen ‘300′?” when the subject was Greece). There’s nothing wrong, I suppose, with pointing out possible rentals to awaken some interest, but, frankly, a handout sheet of “cool resources” — web sites, movies, currently available television series, etc. — would have worked just as well (and been a permanent reference).

This was a sterling opportunity to have launched the whole term with a “great story”, and so I would like to use this posting to demonstrate exactly what I mean by that:

Throughout history cultures have risen up, flourished, then ultimately decayed and disappeared. The people don’t disappear, but their unique way of living does. We call these civilizations. There’s some disagreement amongst historians about how many of these there have been, but even the most optimistic count has less than thirty of them for all of recorded history. By the way, we’re part of a very old civilization here, too, which just has the name “the West”, and encompasses Western and most of Central Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand, and South Africa. Mexico, Central and South America are also an offshoot of this civilization. But places like China, or India, or Russia, or North Africa and the Middle East, are all in different civilizations, and that means those people have very different ways of looking at the world than do we in the West.

We’re going to study two of the very first civilizations. Both of these started along the banks of rivers running through a desert. It’s easy to control land when getting water to it is a lot of work, and yet these two were very different: one was as commercial a society as our own is, and the other was as regimented and socially organised from the top as this country has never been. Two rivers, two peoples, very different lives, and even though they came to know one another and trade they never became like each other.

The first civilization we know about we call Sumerian, and it has its home in the place we now call Iraq. The Sumerians built great cities, some of which actually appear in the Old Testament Christians use and in the first book of the Torah that Jews use: places with names like Ur, Akkad, Nimrod, Nineveh, Sumer itself and finally the great city of Babylon, where one of the wonders of the ancient world, the Hanging Gardens were located. All of the land was farmed, and the Sumerians dug irrigation canals to carry water from their two rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates, to the land on either bank of these live-giving waterways.

The Sumerians used a number system based on twelves and sixties, and this is why today we have clocks that count from 1 to 12, why we divide the day into 24 hours, 60 minutes and 60 seconds, why there are 360° in a circle and many other things. They studied the skies, and domesticated many crops: the wheat we turn into bread was something they turned from a short plant just like grass into the tall sheaves you can see today on a farm.

They also invented writing. They were businesspeople, just like us: the earliest writing we have on earth are invoices and cheques, deposit slips and accounting sheets. They had a religion of many gods, some of which spread farther into other civilizations, especially the goddess for fertility and good crops, Ishtar, and the thunder god, Yahweh.

We’re also going to learn about the oldest story the world has, the story of Gilgamesh, a mighty hunter, a man of war who learned to be a man of peace, and the first code of laws, the code of Hammurabi. So much of what we just take for granted today got its start in Sumer.

The other civilization that didn’t have any previous ones to give it an example for starting up is Egypt. Egypt, remember, is in North Africa, and the Egyptian world was built along the Nile River and its delta into the Mediterranean Sea.

The Egyptians had a very different way of living. They were more communal: the priests were also the managers of the crops, farmers would put their crops in a common treasury and the priests would hand out food all year long. Today people might call this communistic, or socialist, but for the Egyptians it was a way of sharing good times and bad up and down the Nile, where one end of the country could have a good year and the other end a bad one. The Sumerians would have sold each other what they needed: the Egyptians merely gathered it up and redistributed it. They were a people who didn’t use money for anything.

The Egyptians built massive structures that are still standing almost completely intact today: these are the Pyramids, the Great Temples in the Valley of the Kings, and the Sphinx. Pyramids were tombs to bury the rulers, the Pharaohs as they called themselves, for the Egyptians were very concerned with what happens to people in their next life. Most of these have been looted for the gold and jewels in them over the years, but in 1922 we discovered an unlooted tomb, that of a boy who was Pharaoh and then died at 18 named Tutankhamun, and the many treasures have been safely stored in museums and sent around the world so that people could see just how wonderful the Egyptians’ art was. Egypt is the civilization that lived the longest, lasting for 4,000 years, and all the other peoples around the Mediterranean were in awe of its splendours.

Egypt lasted a very long time in part because of the deserts around it: it was cut off from other places in a way Sumer never was. When you’re more connected not only do you have to worry more about being conquered, but you also get a steady flow of ideas that help change you. Egypt mostly didn’t have to worry about being attacked, but all the isolation also meant that it didn’t take in very many ideas from other people, either.

The last civilization we’re going to study is a second generation one, meaning Egypt and Sumer were already around before it got started. This is ancient Greece.

Of all the ancient civilizations it is the one that leads to us most directly, but it is not the only influence we have that helps form the people we are now.

Greek civilization was built around cities — each city was like a little country. The Greeks invented science as we know it, great epic poetry, sculptures, carried out wide-ranging commerce and established new cities wherever they went. There are Greek cities located everywhere from the shores of the Black Sea, to the south of France and North Africa. Greek religion was also city-based: Athens, for instance, was the city of the god Athena, and Greek cities had altars and temples for other cities’ gods so that travellers and merchants who moved there could remain connected to their own cultures.

To help the cities live peaceably instead of always fighting they invented pan-Greek activities like the Olympic Games. They were the first philosophers, and they invented a form of democracy in the city of Athens. Our first great teachers who founded schools that we know about by name were Plato, who founded a philosophic academy to teach people how to be leaders in a city, and Aristotle, who was a student of Plato’s who then started his own school teaching science, grammar, poetry and ethics, the Lyceum. Both of these stayed open for over 900 years.

The Greeks were also superb warriors — they were the ones who used soldiers inside a wooden horse to conquer the city of Troy, and they were the ones who defended Greece with only a few hundred men against the advancing Persian army. Some cities used “citizen armies”; others had professional soldier classes; but all were trained and able to fight fiercely not just as individuals, but in groups. Eventually they were conquered by another group of people that shared their civilization but were more aggressive, the Romans, but for the entire life of the Roman Empire it was the Greeks who were considered the “civilized” ones.

Each of these three great peoples has given much to our world, and we continue to study them because of their influence on our lives. Over this term, we’re going to try to get to know them as they might have known themselves…

Put some pictures to this of some of the sights, and you might have the sort of opening that has the students racing to get home — to crack open their book and begin to read.

It is critically important, I think, to create a sense of wonder about a unit in the curriculum. Children in schools today live in a world where there are so many distractions, many of which appear more exciting than anything that goes on in a classroom. “If all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players” (as Shakespeare said in another context), don’t teachers owe their charges the best possible thespian skills to awaken the desire for the unit that lies ahead?

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2 Comments

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  1. I wish I would have had a teacher who shared the “great story” like that!

    • I certainly didn’t! On the other hand, both of my children did. The truly strange thing is that presenting material in this way isn’t hard, and it isn’t prohibited, yet outside of schooling systems like Montessori that require it, it seldom seems to happen.

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